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2018 NBA Draft Recap: Clippers Walk Away With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson

Some thoughts on an eventful evening.

NBA: NBA Draft
Take that insect hat off your head, Shai. You’re coming to L.A.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know that I have a way to weave all the must-mention Clipper storylines from tonight’s NBA Draft—there’s quite a few of them, and they range widely in topic. I also don’t think it suits me, or any of you, for me to write seven different draft recaps focusing on different relevant issues. Frankly, that would just get cluttered, and confusing, and probably a bit annoying to read through.

So I’m going to go with a bit of a cop-out here and not even try to smoothly transition from one topic to the next. I’m gonna rock my post-Draft takes old-fashioned blog style: by just sharing a few disjointed thoughts under separate sub-headings.

The Kawhi Dream is (Probably) Dead

Look, I’ve learned to never say never in the wild world of NBA Off-Season transactions. But I’ve also learned how to, with a pretty high degree of accuracy, sniff out what hypotheticals are and are not feasible. There was always a lot working against the Clippers in the Kawhi sweepstakes. First of all, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Spurs were in no rush to move Kawhi and would even consider stretching this saga out until the trade deadline. Beyond that, the Clippers lack serious top-end assets (either an All-Star, a super enticing young prospect, or a top-5 pick) to build a package around. The best they could muster was Tobias Harris and picks 12 and 13 in last night’s draft. There’s a lot of value in there, but not enough for Kawhi.

Still, there were reasons to be optimistic that a deal was a possibility yesterday. The Clippers got a massive assist from Kawhi himself due to reports that his camp was telling teams that, if anyone besides the two L.A. teams traded for him, he’d leave in free agency next summer. That drastically reduces the assets that teams around the league would be willing to invest in a trade for a one-year rental. Beyond that, the ever-reliable Ramona Shelburne reported that talks with L.A.’s other team had gone nowhere amidst whispers that the Spurs were stubbornly refusing to deal with the Lakers. So, if only L.A. teams are going to make competitive offers, and the Spurs don’t want to talk to one of those teams... that seems to leave the Clippers in a pretty good spot. Factor in that the 12th and 13th picks have immensely more value before the draft (when the Spurs can not only select players of their own choosing, but also have options to easily trade the picks to move up, back, or out of the draft), and it seemed as though a draft-day deal was at least possible.

But when it was time for the draft to start, Tobias and the two late lottery picks weren’t enough as a base package for San Antonio to seriously discuss the finer points of a deal with the Clippers. And now, with those picks turned into Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson, the Clippers’ assets hold significantly less potential value for the Spurs. Frankly, the Clippers are left in a situation where I could see another team offering more, even at risk of Kawhi being a rental. Additionally, I seriously question the extent to which the Spurs will shortchange themselves to spite the Lakers. And lastly, the Spurs’ insistence today that they will try to repair the relationship with Kawhi instead of trade him lessens the odds of a deal happening at all.

Don’t Sweat Two Seconds for Shai

I haven’t seen very many people super upset with the fact that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the Clippers’ top prospect tonight. On the whole, most people seem to be believers in SGA as a starting guard of the future for the Clippers. Sure, some (myself included) may have preferred Miles Bridges to Shai, but the consensus opinion of Shai is pretty high.

What I find really, really interesting, though, is that a lot of Clippers fans seem to take great exception to the fact that the Clippers gave up two future second-round picks in order to move up from 12th to 11th to select Shai. Here’s roughly how the story went: the Clippers fell in love with SGA over the course of the season at Kentucky, and after specifically targeting him at the combine culminated in Shai having dinner with Jerry West and other Clippers brass, both sides viewed the other as their top choice. The two sides did their best, with draft rumor aggregators noting leading up to the draft that they had no knowldege of SGA working out for any teams. Ultimately, though, they weren’t quite able to pull it off. We’ll probably never know if teams’ rumored interest in Shai was legitimate or just an attempt to blow up the Clippers’ spot, but in the days leading up to the draft it was reported that Charlotte’s 11th pick was his floor. When the Hornets went on the clock, they actually preferred Miles Bridges, but appeared poised to send the 11th pick to the Suns so that Phoenix could take SGA. Facing the possibility of losing their guy, the Clippers opted not to chance calling Charlotte’s bluff—they ponied up two future second-round picks to move up to 11 and ensure that they’d get SGA.

I’m the kind of guy who tends to overanalyze the small details of deals, looking for extra avenues to add marginal value and flexibility. But even I have to say that the hand-wringing over two future second-round picks seems a little excessive in this case. The Clippers traded Cleveland’s 2020 2nd rounder and their own 2021 second rounder—two years where they currently have another pick in the draft. Additionally, Steve Ballmer has shown a repeated willingness to buy into the second round of the draft to take chances on players that the Clippers’ front office likes (it didn’t happen this year due to a roster spot crunch). There’s no reason to believe that that will change down the line, so the only risk is if one of the picks the Clippers gave up is in the very high 30s, when picks tend to not be for sale. The only other downside is that they lost a couple small assets that could have been used in other trades, but that’s a strange argument to use to say that they shouldn’t have traded them.

The real storyline to track here is comparing SGA’s career to that of Miles Bridges and some of the other players who went in this range, to determine how well the Clippers did for themselves. The low likelihood that those future seconds become significant losses makes the low cost easily worthwhile for the Clippers to get the player they prefer. Whether or not they prefer the right guy is the much more interesting narrative.

Trading Back For Jerome Wasn’t the Answer

I won’t let my positivity steer me towards lying: I didn’t have Jerome Robinson on my radar aside from a couple rumors linking him to the Clippers in recent days. When Robert and I made our big boards ahead of the draft, neither of us placed Jerome in our top 20s. I would not have picked him at 13 if I was the one making the call.

But I’m not sure the extent to which I buy a lot of the criticisms of the Clippers’ front office when it comes to choosing Jerome (criticisms of Jerome himself as a prospect are another story). I tend to be a little cautious when it comes to criticizing teams for drafting guys based on my personal preferences: while Robert pointed out yesterday that blindly trusting experts is a tired argument when NBA front offices so routinely make major mistakes, there’s also at least an extent to which an expert is an expert. Like I said, Jerome wasn’t on my radar. I didn’t study him and hate him, I honestly didn’t even really factor him in when building my big board. My first reaction on twitter was, simply, “the fuck.” I was only loosely familiar with him and hadn’t read much about him. It’s fair to say that my preference for Zhaire Smith probably wasn’t the most informed opinion.

The question here is whether the Clippers got good value with this pick, and we can evaluate that in two ways: did they get the best prospect available, and could they have gotten him and an additional asset by moving back in the draft?

The first question is a clearly subjective one, and the second question is a guessing game, so we have to approach each with care and nuance. Here’s what I’ll say about the BPA question: I’m on record saying that I didn’t think Robinson was the BPA at this pick, as is Robert and a ton of other people. It’s very possible that you are too—or, that you at least want to make clear that you disagree with Jerry West’s evaluation that Robinson is. That’s fine. But I would be careful about making absolute statements regarding prospects. I certainly don’t know enough about Robinson to speak definitively on him, and I can’t imagine that very many Clippers fans do either. The mistakes that pro scouts and talent evaluators make is a great example of how hard it is to get the draft right. They have to learn to navigate the uncertainty involved in the process, and I have a feeling that the NBA community would be better off if we were okay with the idea that someone else might have a different big board than us and not be an incompetent idiot.

The second question is a much more difficult one. It’s true that Jerome had been mocked as high as 13 in the week leading up to the draft, but that seems to be a result of people catching wind that the Clippers were thinking about taking him, not expert analysts thinking it was what the Clippers should do. This is almost definitely the case, for example, with The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, whose final mock draft projected Robinson at 13 despite the high-scoring guard sitting at 26th on his big board. It might not have been the case for, though, which had Jerome positioned at 11th on their big board, quite high even by the standards of his meteoric rise during the pre-draft process. They even say that it’s easy to see him developing into a “poor man’s Klay Thompson or rich man’s Kevin Martin,” which is pretty high praise at the shooting guard position.

If I had to guess—and this is honestly just a guess, I’d say that there’s something like a 75-80% chance that Robinson would have been on the board if the Clippers had completed, for example, a rumored trade that would have sent the 13th pick to Atlanta for picks 19 and 30. You probably get Robinson at 19, but there’s a chance that you don’t, as he’s more NBA-ready than high-potential guards like Zhaire Smith and Lonnie Walker, who reportedly slid due to some health concerns. So what value do you add by taking on that (slight) risk? Well, the Clippers are already going to have to trim down their roster to get to the 15-man limit by opening night, so I don’t think that interest in any specific prospect in the 30s would have really enticed them as a 3rd rookie and 19th player to factor into their July plans. And while they probably could have gotten a future second, we’re back to weighing a fringe asset that the Clippers will buy for cash against the risk of them not getting the prospect they prefer.

This is obviously a little more questionable than the SGA decision, because Robinson was much more of a reach where the Clippers took him, but if there’s a problem with the value here, it has to do with Jerome himself and not the fact that the Clippers took him with the 13th pick instead of taking him at 19 and adding the next Brice Johnson with pick 30. That brings us back to the first question—the subjective one about which prospects are better than others. It’s okay to have an opinion, but let’s maybe temper the big declarations of competency that we’re making based upon minimally informed opinions.

Guard Movement is Coming Soon

Take a look at this: the Clippers currently have eight guards on their roster—eight players who play point guard or shooting guard, none of whom are really versatile options to slide over to small forward on a consistent basis. Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic, Austin Rivers, Lou Williams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson, Jawun Evans, and Sindarius Thornwell. That’s 4 veterans who have to get minutes, two rookies who the team is going to want a look at this year (especially SGA, who should have an opportunity to earn starting experience), and two developing second-year second-rounders. Then, add to the mix the bird rights to Avery Bradley, another veteran who would need minutes if he re-signs, and restricted free agency for Tyrone Wallace, and you’re up to 10 guards who have some kind of positive value that the team would like to keep around. Remember that you only get 15 roster spots.

My bet is that the Clippers let Bradley walk at this point. There was some interest in exploring a one-year deal with him, but I’d imagine that that’s done after drafting two guards. Additionally, this seems to support to earlier reports that the Clippers are considering releasing Milos Teodosic if he opts into his contract for next season (though I expect they’ll explore trade options as well). Beyond that, look for the team to shop Patrick Beverley and/or Austin Rivers in trades, either shoring up their backup forward positions or seeking a big man to help fill a potential void if DeAndre Jordan leaves. I also wouldn’t be shocked, given the additions of two lottery guard talents, if the team is a little more willing to part ways with Tyrone Wallace, whose relationship with the team was strained by the team’s reluctance to offer a reasonable deal during their in-season negotiations. And even when all of that is settled, Sindarius Thornwell could still end up being a victim of the Clippers’ need to trim their roster down to 15 by opening night.